Global Health Interventions for U.S. Food and Drug Safety

In 2007, a series of high-profile scandals involving contaminated blood thinner, toxic toothpaste, and melamine-laced pet food demonstrated the threat that unsafe food and drug imports pose to U.S. public health and international trade. Contaminated and adulterated products have sickened and killed U.S. consumers, fueled protectionism, raised business costs, and destabilized markets. A 2008 public opinion poll found that 67 percent of Americans are worried about food safety, ranking it higher than concerns about pandemic flu or natural disasters.

Food and drug safety also has the attention of U.S. policymakers. In 2007, the Bush administration convened an Import Safety Working Group that called for an increased focus on prevention, more resources and greater mandates for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other U.S. regulators, and increased engagement with trading partners and industry. President Obama appointed a cabinet-level Food Safety Working Group and requested the largest-ever budget increase for FDA food programs. The House of Representatives recently passed food safety legislation to modernize the authorities of the FDA and improve the ability of the FDA to trace and register facilities that import food, issue mandatory food recalls, and conduct border surveillance and enforcement. The Senate is scheduled to take up the food safety legislation in the coming weeks. Drug safety bills, pending in the House and Senate, would increase the mandate and resources for the FDA to conduct inspections of foreign drug suppliers.

Increasing the resources and mandate of U.S. regulators to conduct border and foreign risk-based inspections are positive and necessary steps, but insufficient. There are legal and practical limits to the ability of U.S. regulatory authorities to conduct inspections of foreign food and drug producers and suppliers. The scale and complexity of the global trade in food and drugs overwhelm traditional methods of border control and inspection at ports of entry. Ensuring the safety of U.S. food and drug imports requires new approaches as well as new resources for traditional interventions.

Thomas J. Bollyky